When I arrived in Honduras for the International Women’s Media Fund (IWMF) Adelante fellowship, many journalists here were discussing whether or not the New York Times had failed in its reporting on gangs in San Pedro Sula. People were debating whether the interviewees had given consent for their pictures to be taken, or whether they truly realized that the story would blow up internationally. I want to believe the reporter who wrote the story took great care. But I’m also not going to discredit anyone who claims they were not consulted. I wasn’t there.
As I visited people facing difficult situations myself, in one home I heard a similar claim from a person featured in a story in a local publication. In this case I couldn’t help but wonder how they didn’t understand that a portrait they had posed for would be posted online, and if they didn’t consent to pictures and didn’t want press attention, why did they let the journalists into their home? Why did they give the interviews? But again, I wasn’t there.
I don’t know what people who don’t work in media expect when speaking to a journalist. I have also never been remotely close to facing the same kind of risk for sharing my own name and photo in a news piece.
I’m not going to opine on either of these cases because I really don’t have all the facts; nor do I have the resources to investigate the matter myself. What I will offer you instead is a small taste of the considerations that have run through my head on this trip.
As journalists, and especially as foreign journalists – for whom the risks in a given country are often not the same as those faced by local residents – I think we need to keep a conversation going about our process, disclosure and responsibility for our sources’ and colleagues’ safety. Too often, particularly for freelancers, this process is not spelled out and it’s simply assumed that the journalist will “do the right thing.” And of course, different bosses and institutions may have different ideas about what that actually means.
Often my stories are trees, silently falling in the woods. So far, I haven’t been the lead on an explosive story. With that said, I’ve had to interview a number of people anonymously due to safety concerns, and my work always ends up online (even if only for a short while, or behind a clunky paywall).
Generally speaking, when I am speaking to someone I want to interview, I introduce myself, say what media company I’m working for, describe where the work will (or might) be seen, and whether it will be available online and/or internationally. Once that’s out of the way, if the person still wants to talk to me I assume we’re all set. But in light of the people who have recently said that they didn’t know their pictures would be published, or that they didn’t clearly understand how many people would see the interviews, I’ve been trying to stress that the work I’m doing for CBC Radio here will end up online. I’ve been explaining that the full names they have given me will be used and that there may be accompanying text that also lists their names online. I tell people the photos I take could also appear online, and they may be featured in my social media posts, or on other websites. In at least one case I was asked after the fact not to publish the photos I took.
During this reporting trip, and generally in my work, I’m trying to consider what risks people face simply by speaking to me. I’ve been asking people questions specific to their situations, just to be sure. Are they concerned about their names being made public as prospective migrants? Are they afraid they will face retribution from their workplaces, just for talking to me? Are they afraid they are going to get hurt? Should I not mention the gang that controls their neighbourhood?
I’m trying to be transparent, I’m trying to consider consequences; but I don’t know for sure whether I’ve done it “right”. I think we need to keep talking about what the ethical approach should be and whether every situation warrants the same response. We should also discuss what we expect people to tell us with respect to the confidentiality of the information that they’re sharing – e.g., that they want to request anonymity, or that certain information be kept off the record – and what options, if any, we should offer them up front.
Right now I don’t have to worry about these issues to the same degree a journalist covering gangs, wars, whistleblowers or sexual assault might. There’s probably a lot of background information I don’t need to include in order to tell my five-minute radio documentaries, like naming gangs, calling out specific people, or detailing sexual assault.
The stories I’ve chosen to tell in Honduras are focused on low-wage jobs and migration; and opposition to the government and its response to protestors. I am profiling clothing factory workers and a man who many consider to be a political prisoner. Still, could the people I’ve interviewed end up worse off because they talked to me? How might their stories be used by others? In the end, what will people learn from my reporting? How might they respond? Will my work result in anything changing? Should it?
Carol Off, a journalist I deeply admire and had the privilege to work with at my first “real” journalism job at CBC more than ten years ago, wrote a whole book dealing with these topics in the context of her reporting in Afghanistan. In a 2018 lecture at my former university, she said, “As soon as we arrive at an event we are covering we have altered its course.”
Here in Honduras I’ve been thinking: what will we leave behind? How might we affect the people we meet with? This job doesn’t have the same pressure as brain surgery or defusing a bomb; we have time to reflect, review, revise. But damn, I’m feeling the weight of this responsibility.
Dagna Gallinger, 2019 Honduras Fellow
Note: Since this is a protest in the street with other media present, people were not asked for permission to have their pictures taken.